Seek to understand rather than judge

One of the most experienced consultants in Huthwaite International used to say that the most important attribute a salesperson could have was curiosity. What he meant was that good salespeople get to know and understand their customers BEFORE they make a pitch.

In coaching I was introduced to the idea that a good coach stays with the not knowing. This means that you don’t necessarily respond immediately to what somebody says to you. Instead you stay in questioning mode. You listen and probe until ultimately the coachee reaches a deeper understanding of their current situation and can make more informed choices.

Bill Isaacs in his book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together makes much the same point. Good dialogue is about listening and suspending judgment until you can really start to see where the other side is coming from.

Asking why?

In my own coaching research I discovered that effective coaches were more likely to seek reasons for behaviour from a coachee than they were to give them positive or negative feedback. We call this verbal behaviour “Seeking Reasons”. It basically means asking the question why? You will read in some coaching textbooks that a good coach should never use the word why. Why, you might ask? Well, as adults, when someone asks us “why?” we often hear the message: why on earth have you done that? So we feel judged. But how do we respond when a four year old child asks us why? As a parent we know that children’s “why” questions can become persistent and even annoying, especially when we can’t answer them easily. But we never see these children as judging us. No, they are simply being curious.

What lies beneath?

Curiosity is important in childhood because it helps us learn about the world, and so helps us survive in it. It is also important in building relationships with people. The more curious you are about someone the more you are likely to understand them and start to get a sense of how they see the world. In effect you are delving deep beneath the waves and exploring their iceberg. And yes, that will often mean going back to childhood. I always get interested when people talk to me about their childhood and their relationships with their parents. It tends to reveal so much about them and explain so much of their behaviour.

Understanding someone is not just a nice to have. Think about someone you know whom you find difficult to work with. How much do you really understand about where they are coming from? Can you walk a mile in their shoes? How many assumptions do you make about them? Understanding them does not mean agreeing with them. It simply means that you get why they think like they do. It means accepting that they may be different from you. That does not make them good or bad. It’s about focusing on the “what is”, rather than the “what should be”. T

hat’s the difference between understanding someone and judging them. It’s my take on what Carl Rogers referred to as unconditional positive regard. It’s about valuing the person for who they are, and not judging them on their behaviour. Unconditional positive regard opens people up to taking risks and making mistakes. These are essential parts of the learning process.

The importance of listening

If you want to persuade or influence someone then you need to understand them. Which is why listening is a vital part of being curious. And you need to know what you are listening for.

Richard Mullender, a former hostage negotiator, gives a good example of listening. He described a crisis situation where the perpetrator; a man; was screaming at them about how he had come home from work to find his wife being unfaithful and how he’d flipped, saying: What would you do? What would you do? Richard’s point was that to understand this man you had to go beyond the words and hear the underlying message, which was that this was a family man. So that’s what the hostage negotiator works with to persuade the man to end the situation.

Deep listening is not just about listening to the actual words; it’s about listening to the sentiment behind those words. The words themselves can help though. In systemic work we were taught to pay particular attention to the first 10 words that are said in an interview or counselling session. There is often something deeply revealing in what comes out “top of brain”.

I would add to this that I think it is also important to notice what is NOT said. Is there a particular topic that the other person does not seem to want to talk about? My other key listening technique is to listen for the “ooh” words. Those are the words that make you think: ooh; what’s that about? I once had a coachee tell me they felt nervous before meetings. When I probed the word “nervous” I opened up a whole new area for the coaching, which eventually got us to the heart of that person’s challenges.

Good listening and probing also means knowing what to probe for and what to leave alone. I had a coachee who told me that their mother had died when they were a young child. I was curious to know why the mother had died, but I refrained from asking that question, because I didn’t see how knowing that would help me help the coachee make sense of the impact of that death on their life. Curiosity, it turns out, is one of my strengths. But as with any strength, it becomes a weakness when I overplay it. So I need to be curious, but not nosy.

Ultimately curiosity underpins what I see as three of the golden rules of coaching:

1) be present in the room

2) seek to understand, rather than judge

3) listen!

On an organisational level curiosity helps organisations open up their thinking to embrace different perspectives and opinions. But that’s the subject of another blog.